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“Life is but smoke and shadows” #WITMonth #TatyanaTolstaya @DauntBooksPub

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Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya
Translated by Anya Migdal

You’ll recall me having a grumble back at the end of June about how hopeless I am with reading challenges (although I’m happier with the concept of projects, and *have* got back on board with some during July). However, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, one event I always love to join in with is Women in Translation month; and my first book of translated female writing is a wonderful collection of short works by the amazing Tatyana Tolstaya.

Tolstaya, as her name suggests, has a fairly impressive literary lineage, including both Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. Born in Leningrad, she’s spent portions of her life living in America; and both of the countries appear as backdrops in this selection of short works. I say ‘works’ deliberately, because I think it’s a little simplistic to call what Tolstaya writes short stories. The works featured range in length from a few pages to novella length; some read as essays, some as autofiction and some as pure invention. What’s consistent, though, is the quality; as all are really excellent.

So where to start discussing this collection? Perhaps by mentioning a few favourites. The opening piece “20/20” reveals how the narrator discovered her inner vision and became an author after an eye operation to cure myopia; “Smoke and Shadows” is set in an American university and appears to start out as autofiction but then morphs into something more fantastic; and “A Young Lady in Bloom” is the story of a University student in Soviet Russia making ends meet by working as a telegram delivery girl, a job which lets her see behind the facades put up by the inhabitants.

It was June. Evenings were as bright as day, not at all menacing, but rather beautiful: Leningrad, deserted for the summer; magical streets of Petrogradky Island. On the building walls and above the entryways, mascarons of cats and mermaids, triangular female faces of resounding beauty: downcast eyes, luscious hair, daydreams. Alleyways bathed in crepuscular light, purple-hued lilac trees in the parks and gardens, and in the distance, beyond the Neva River, the spire of the Admiralty building.

Then there’s title piece, a long work which looks back at Tolstaya’s relationship with her house in America, as well as with the previous inhabitants and future tenants; “Without” meditates on how barren the modern world would be if Italy and its culture had never existed; and “The Invisible Maiden” is a beautiful extended piece where a woman narrator looks back over her life and times at the family dacha, the long hot summers, the people she knew and the changes which came. “The Square” takes a quirky look at Malevich’s famous painting, equating it with death; and “Doors and Demons” explores a visit to Paris where everything seems to go wrong…

These are just some of the riches in the book, because there isn’t a dud amongst them; in fact, it’s hard to pull out favourites because I enjoyed them all. Tolstaya has an individual, lyrical voice and beautifully captures her locations and characters. The pieces set in America were particularly striking, as she viewed that country with an outsider’s eyes. And the gorgeous atmosphere and sense of hot summer weather she pinned down in “The Invisible Maiden” was just stunning.

If you’re young lady with a braid, of an age of yearning and expectation, and it’s a white night June evening of unfading light, and no one is sleeping, and there is no death, and the sky seems full of music, it feels right to go stand on this portico, hugging a stucco-covered column, watching the sea of lilac bushes cascading down the steps, and breathing in the scent of its white misty foam, the scent of your own pure flesh, the scent of your hair. Life will deceive you later, but not just yet.

“Aetherial Worlds” was an absorbing read and I found myself completely sucked into Tolstaya’s world. There’s a sense of nostalgia running through the book, as Tolstaya meditates on her past, on lovers lost and family passed on; and indeed a world which has changed beyond recognition. In “Father” the narrator begins to dream of her missing parent as a young man; and there is the feeling of a writer taking stock of her life and remembering things which only now exist in an (a)etherial way, as phantoms of the past.

Tolstaya is an author new to me (though I *had* heard of her best known work “The Slynx”, which I believe is very different to this book). I don’t think I’m ready to tackle her dystopian novel quite yet, but her short works are obviously incredible and I believe there are plenty more available. I’m glad I discovered this book in time for #WITMonth as Tolstaya is a compelling writer whose prose and visions linger in the mind; I shall have to track down more of her short stories for next August!*

*****

* Ahem. If ever evidence was needed as to how my book collection is out of control….

After scheduling this post, I took the Tolstaya off to file it on the Russian shelves and discovered that I already own a collection of her short stories… I had *completely* forgotten this, and I’m 99.9% sure I haven’t read it. So that just shows how rubbish I am at keeping track of what I own; but, hey! I have another Tolstaya to read, so result! 😀

Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth

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August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

Bookish Serendipity

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have picked up that I’ve been on my travels recently. I usually do a summer round trip to visit the Aged Parent and then the Offspring, all of whom are located fairly close together in the East Midlands. As I don’t drive, I have to make several train journeys, which are usually enjoyable; as I like to settle down with a book and a coffee and let the train take the strain, as the old slogan used to say.

However, the first leg of the journey which involves going via London was horrendous. I ended up standing all the way on a train that felt like a sardine tin and I was Not Impressed. I couldn’t even read… The rest of visit and the train travel went swimmingly, however, and I had a lovely time everywhere. Middle Child put me up (she usually does) and they all looked after me beautifully. So I had several days of socialising, eating out and of course managed to sneak in a little book shopping… (well, it wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t, would it?)

As you can see, I managed to be pretty restrained! Two new books and three second-hand is good for me, and they all felt like essential purchases.

These are the newbies. I picked up the Pessoa in Hatchards at St. Pancras Station (yes, even while rushing frantically to catch a train, I made time for shopping – and only just made my connection by the skin of my teeth…) I’ve heard such good things about the Penguin translation that I wanted to try it, and this was the first Real Bookshop I’d seen it in. The Gonzalez was a sale item in Waterstones, Kettering – £3 is a real bargain and I had this one on a mental ‘must-read’ list so that was a find!

These are two of the second-hand books, from charity shops in Kettering and Leicester. I seem to be amassing a lot of Robertson Davies without actually reading him and I must get on with it. I also have about 5 gigantic Powys books lurking. I could spend a year just reading him…

And the third second-hand book is very, very interesting:

Finding a Green Virago I want is getting harder, as I don’t intend to try to collect them all, and so I’m quite selective nowadays. “Clash” was sitting in the Age Concern Bookshop in Leicester, and the blurb on the back intrigued me – it’s set around the General Strike of 1926, and as I was feeling the need of something to counteract the hideous right-wing stuff that’s going round at the moment I grabbed it (£2 – a real bargain). It was only when I got it back to the flat and looked more closely I realised that I had a nice review copy of Wilkinson’s second book at home, waiting for me to read… Serendipity or what! I’m about a third of the way into “Clash” at the moment and loving it, and so I think I might move straight on to “Division Bell” afterwards. How exciting!

So a reasonably small haul on my travels. I did, however, arrive back to find that this lovely review copy had arrived, courtesy of Michael Walmer:

I don’t know that I even knew that F. Tennyson Jesse had a sister, but this is she, and this is her only book. Sounds like fabulous fun and I’m really looking forward to it!

Reviewing has got slightly behind while I was away – I’ve finished Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries for #WITmonth, and also have been dipping into Catherine the Great’s Letters. So I’ve done *some* translated women, and I am well into a Virago – hey, I’m almost sticking to my plans!! 😀

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